James Cleveland (Jesse) Owens, one of History Heroes’ Sports Heroes, was born today. An amazing athlete in his own time, in 1935 he set 5 track and field world records and tied a sixth one within 45 minutes and his long jump world record of 18.13m stood from then for 25 years. In the following year, he won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics for the 100m, 200m, 4 x 100m relay and the long jump.
His athletic achievements are enough on their own for Jesse Owens to have made his mark on history but what makes him one of the most significant sports names in history, and a worthy History Heroes’ Sports Hero, is that he achieved all this in a world where he was disadvantaged from the start. Born the son of an American sharecropper in Oakland, Alabama, by the age of seven, Jesse Owens was expected to pick up to 100lbs of cotton a day to help his family. He was often sick as a child, enduring several bouts of pneumonia. A teacher inadvertently gave Jesse Owens his nickname. New to a Cleveland school, where his family had relocated, Jesse Owens told the teacher his name was ‘JC’ after his initials (James Cleveland). The teacher misheard and ‘Jesse’ stuck.
Jesse Owens’ athletic prowess grew quickly and soon he was unstoppable – literally! The world remembers Jesse Owens most, of course, for his amazing triumphs at the 1936 Berlin Olympics – an Olympics, which was meant to be a showcase for Adolf Hitler’s monstrous Aryan ideals. What fantastic poetic justice for Jesse Owens, therefore, an African American, to show Hitler and his cronies how powerful, graceful and superior an athlete he was at that time. But, as Jesse Owens, later said, his own country, USA – and most of the world at that time for that matter – didn’t offer a huge amount more of racial equality, “When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus,” Owens said. “I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.”
Incredibly, the US government did not officially recognise Jesse Owen’s contributions to their country until 1976 when President Ford finally awarded him the US Presidential Medal of Freedom for his achievements in the 1930s.
Here’s a great clip of the man in action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=quQopJmQry4